In America, underage drinking has been a growing serious public health issue. The prevalence of alcohol is high among American youths as compared to other drugs such as cigarettes and marijuana. According to National Institute on Drug Abuse (2011), 58% of college students aged 18-22 consumed alcohol while 39% reported binge drinking. 12.5% of these students reported heavy drinking. Underage drinking poses not only health risks but also safety and psychological risks. It contributes to aggression and violence, car accidents, injuries, and more importantly countless deaths. The immaturity of the young audience coupled with a point in time where they are asserting independence creates a situation where many adolescents and college students are drawn in. This problem has no known solution; however, there are many suggestions for mitigating this growing concern. Once such recommendation includes implementing a higher minimum drinking age. Faced with the overwhelming fact that underage drinking will likely never be abolished should not deter us from identifying and implementing potential preventative measures. As such, this paper will attempt to identify the main contributing factors, the associated risks and consequences of underage drinking and the impact of implementing a higher minimum drinking age on the vulnerable youth of America.
By increasing the age that one has to attain to begin drinking to 21 across all the states in America, the government has offered a very operational approach to upturn youth health and safety. Lifes taken because of alcohol-related crashes have been reduced significantly. The higher minimum drinking age is associated with 50% fewer crashes and also related with lower rates of alcohol drinking and other related complications. However, a lot of teenagers and young adults under the age of 21 still have access to alcoholic beverages. The society tends to accept the fact that alcohol consumption among teenagers and young adults is a normal behavior. Statistics indicate that by the time a teenager is in grade 12, most of them (approximately 71%) have consumed alcohol at least once in their lives (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2011). Older teenagers and young adults particularly those in college tend to drink at even higher level.
Despite the significant effort by the government and other stakeholders in reducing adolescent drinking and other related problem, the prevalence of the alcohol use among the youth under the age of 21 is still high. Many people still do not notice that alcohol usage poses serious consequences not only to the abusers but also other teenagers and the society at large.
The teenage stage is a stage where young individuals try to form an identity and fit in with other peers. Teenagers tend to be under pressure to perform at schools as well as other extra curriculum activities such as sports. Getting into college is one of the important things teenage desires to achieve, and many are afraid of not making it and disappointing not only their parents but also themselves. They may be experiencing problems with their friends, at home, or in romantic relationships. Teenagers also tend to be more impulsive as compared to adults and at times they may act even without considering the consequences.
Despite the fact that most of the students join university already having experimented with liquor, certain facets of college life like limited interaction with parents and other adults, unstructured time, convenience of alcohol availability and unreliable enforcement of underage drinking laws can escalate the problem (Esser, 2017). It is a fact that the binge-drinking rates and incidence of driving after consuming alcohol is higher among college students as compared to non-college youths. First-year students are more vulnerable to heavy drinking and alcohol-related outcomes due to student expectations as well as the social pressures that new students undergo when joining college.
One of the main contributing factors that determine if a teenage will abuse alcohol is family history. According to Gonzales et al. (2015), teenagers raised in a family where some of the family members use drugs particularly alcohol are at a risk of abusing alcohol and drugs. If a child grows in a household where both or one parent abuse alcohol, they may see that the behavior is normal or acceptable. On the same note, such a teenager can easily access alcohol because both of their parents are using the drug.
On the other hand, parents who raise their children in an environment with no alcohol or drugs and respond to their teenage needs tend to be better in regulating their emotions as well as behaviors. Teenagers raised from such families may not abuse alcohol. Parents who have greater warmth, moderate discipline and limited stress make their children’s to be in a position to regulate themselves and control their behavior.
Depression is another factor that may make teenagers abuse alcohol. Many teenagers have a hard time in handling daily stress of being a teenager resulting in depression. In a situation where a teenager does not know how to deal with depression, he or she may turn to alcohol as a way of forgetting issues at school and home as well as numb his or her feelings. On the other hand, teenagers who have learned on how to deal with their feelings healthily can easily avoid misusing drugs as a way of avoiding stress and depression. A good example of dealing with stress healthily might speak to family or friend to solve problems or participate in activities such as sport to deal with their depression.
Another major factor that may influence teenagers to engage in alcohol abuse is peer pressure. Teens that have friends who drink alcohol are more likely to begin drinking. Not drinking may make them feel alienated from their friends which are an uncomfortable situation for adolescents. On the same note, young people who attend parties where alcohol is present might be tempted to try out alcohol. The first experience may make them like alcohol and continue drinking alcohol regularly leading to abuse of alcohol.
Experimentation with alcohol because of peer pressure can have potentially dangerous concerns. However, researchers have noted that experimentation and increased risk-taking among adolescent is an important part of developmental progression, as they begin to shape their own identities and develop strong bonds with other people within the society (Esser, 2017).
Lack of social support
Adolescents who have a hard time in socializing, building, and maintaining a healthy relationship may resort to alcohol. A teen who lack friends, their parents are always absent, and have problems meeting and interact with new people tend to feel lonely and become stressed. Most of the children who lack proper social support system tend to develop a low self-esteem. On the same note, teens who experience a heartbreak or experience abusive romantic relationship tend to begin using alcohol to forget their worries. One drink can tempt a teen to continue consuming alcohol resulting in alcohol abuse.
Uncontrolled advertisements have been increasing over the years. Be as it may, media tend to portray alcohol consumption to be sexy and fun. Alcohol companies tend to sponsor popular events also and may give free products to young people. According to Esser et al. (2017), alcohol promotion may influence the behaviors and beliefs of teens inducing them to consume alcohol unlawfully.
Youth access to alcohol
Availability of alcohol to youths is also one of the contributing factors of underage drinking. Be as it may, not all sellers are keen enough in barring underage youths from purchasing alcohol. Some youths may also provide fake identifications in order to dupe sellers and purchase alcohol. Research indicates that persons who were allowed to purchase alcohol lawfully before the age of 21 are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder or other drug use issues late in life.
In some instance, teens may convince adults to purchase alcohol for them or rather steal liquor from their friends, parents, among other avenues. Adults may also buy liquor and offer to the youths during parties or events.
Risk and Consequences Associated with Underage Drinking
Alcohol consumption by teens and young adults may result to serious health concerns in the short-term as well as long-term. Some of the health consequences of college students and underage drinking include:
Risky Sexual Behavior
Teenagers who consume alcohol often tend to exhibit risky sexual behavior such as having sex when drinking, engaging in unplanned or unprotected sex, have a sexual experience at a higher age, unexpected pregnancies among others. Such risky behavior tends to result in unplanned pregnancies, contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), or have babies that have Alcohol Spectrum (FAS) disorders.
According to National Institute on Drug Abuse (2016), risky sexual behaviors is prevalent on youths that drink alcohol (87%) as compared to those who do not drink. On the same note, 18% of youths consuming alcohol have had sex before the age of 13 as compared to 5 percent of youths who do not abuse alcohol. Many of the youths who have sexual intercourse while consuming alcohol report to having unprotected sex. Such youths are at a risk of getting unwanted pregnancies. On the same note, women who take liquor when they are expectant are at a risk of delivering infants that have FAS disorders. Such infants tend to experience development delays and are born with defects such as complications with the central nervous system, growth deficiencies, and abnormal facial features (Christenson & Geiger SD, 2014).
Be as it may, alcohol abuse during adolescent may result in negative effects on the brain. According to Christenson & Geiger (2014), abuse of alcohol and other drugs can alter the chemical makeup and structure of the brain resulting in brain disorders. On the same note, teens tend to have a diminished sensitivity to intoxication, and thus they can consume a lot of alcohol without feeling very intoxicated. The reason could be the fact that youths have higher metabolic rates as compared to adults.
On the same note, the use of alcohol by teens is linked to abnormalities in the portion of the brain that regulate impulse and reasoning commonly referred to as the prefrontal cortex. Having low prefrontal cortex development may result in impulsive behavior and deficiencies in reasoning. The main mental problem associated with alcohol abuse include chronic alcohol addiction and alcohol dependence (Christenson & Geiger 2014).
Alcohol poisoning tends to happen when individual drinks a lot of alcohol within a short period. According to Esser et al. (2017), binge drinking is among the primary causes of alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking is when a person consumers more than five drinks or more drinks within a short time. This behavior is prevalent to college students or teens because they are inexperienced and are more likely to binge drink.
Use of other drugs
Using alcohol at a tender age is harmful as such teens are more likely to consume other drugs. Despite the fact that other factors tend to determine whether youth progresses to use other drugs and the types of drugs they use, alcohol tends to be followed by the use of tobacco, followed by marijuana and then other illegal drugs.
Apart from health consequences, underage drinking may also result in safety consequences such as:
Impaired decision making
Alcohol impairs both the judgment and coordination while driving cars and other machinery making them cause accidents. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2010), approximately 600,000 students have been intentionally injured while they were intoxicated. The number of teenage drivers involved in fatal motor vehicle accidents in the year 2010 is approximately 5,051 drivers in the United States (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2010). Of these teenage drivers, 19% of them had a higher blood alcohol concentration levels that surpass the permissible limit of 0.008. Such vehicle crashes result in various kind of injuries including lifetime disabilities, minor wounds, and even death.
Underage drinkers engage in violent acts as compared to those who do not drink. Some of the common acts include
Homicide: According to Hanes (2012), homicide is the second prominent cause of bereavement among teens between the ages of 15 and 24. Statistics indicate that 36 percent of underage homicides involved the consumption of alcohol.
Physical violence: Alcohol consumers tend to engage in physical violence as compared to those who do not drink. The frequency of flights that occurs in general and at school involve heavy drinkers. According to Hanes (2012), approximately 696, 000 students in college were assaulted or hit by other comrades who have been consuming alcohol.
Sexual assault: underage drinkers tend to have dating violence more frequently as compared to non-drinkers. According to Hanes (2012), higher than 70,000 college students are fatalities of sexual assaults related to the use of alcohol. Alcohol tends to be a factor for both the victims and assailants of sexual assaults.
Suicide: According to Hanes (2012), repetitive heavy alcohol drinking is attributed to hopelessness, depression, and suicide attempts as well as suicide ideation.
Underage drinking can have an impact on academic performance of college students. College students who consume alcohol may miss classes, perform poorly on assignments and examinations, lag behind in their schoolwork and earn lower grades (Gonzales et al, 2015). Teens may also fail classes, drop out of school or even get expelled because of their behaviors.
Adolescent drinking has both short-term and long-term economic effects. Alcoholic drinks tend to be expensive and result in significant cost to the teenager, family, community and the legal system. Underage drinkers incur cost in paying for alcohol and medical services in the event where they are injured.
Long-term effects of underage drinking tend to be varied and manifests itself in different ways. For instance, the cost can be in the form of potential earnings or contributions a person may make in the future. Underage drinkers who are not rehabilitated have a inordinate risk of becoming alcoholic or have complications associated with the use of alcohol when they become adults. Such persons may have a problem in getting and sustaining a job. On the same note, college students who excessively consume alcohol may have low grades, poor social life, which may sooner or later affect their productivity at the workplace.
Interventions to Curb Underage Drinking
There are various strategies put in place to curb the prevalence of underage drinking. Some of the prevention methods include:
The use of policies, laws and environmentally focused interventions
The use of these interventions tends to focus mostly on older adolescents. According to Gonzales et al. (2015), these interventions are not effective in addressing alcohol use for adolescents under the age of 16. These policy intervention does not also address the issue of delaying initiation of alcohol use or reduce the consumption of alcohol for the younger adolescents. However, these policies have been effective for older adolescents, for instance, the focus on reducing the sale of alcohol to minors, the policy requiring the use of identification checks by vendors and reducing tolerance of the community on the sale of alcohol to teens and underage drinking in general.
Increasing the minimum legal drinking age from the age of 18 to 21 is one such policy that has resulted in the positive effect on both health as well as the safety of teenagers and young adults. Research indicates that raising the minimum age has significantly reduced the prevalence of underage drinking, the number of alcohol-related crashes and vehicle fatalities among other consequences of alcohol abuse.
These interventions tend to focus on addressing some of the protective factors and a range of risks associated with life within the family. Most of the family-focused intervention are used on families having pre-school aged children and the key aspects addressed include improving parent-child relationship, enhancing children psychological and social readiness to join a school, and decreasing aggressive behavior. According to Hanes (2012), family-focused interventions have been effective in delaying the initiation of alcohol use on teenagers and reducing the rate of drinking during adolescence and young adulthood.
School-based intervention focuses mainly on strengthening teen’s life skills, role-playing, peer refusal skills, fostering positive peer relationships among others. School-based interventions can either be individual-level intervention designed to change college student’s attitudes, knowledge and behaviors touching on alcohol to reduce the rate of drinking. Such individual-level intervention includes things such as education and awareness programs, the use of motivation and feedback as well as behavioral interventions among others.
On the same note, environmental strategies should be designed that targets the college community and all the students. Such interventions target to reduce the availability of the drink to cut alcohol consumption and harmful consequences of alcohol on campus and the community as a whole.
Underage drinking has become a menace to the society with far-reaching consequences than what we think only of the users of the drink but also other people around them. Raising the minimum drinking age to buy alcohol from 18 years to 21 years in America has resulted in positive effects on both the health and safety of teens. Inopportunely, alcohol consumption by teens is still prevalent. Many people in the community perceive the consumption of alcohol to be ‘normal’ for young adults and teenagers. Young people can still easily access alcoholic beverages even after the minimum age for purchasing alcohol has been increased.
As such, communities, institutions, and the government should design interventions aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of alcohol consumption. A combination of the different intervention is the best so as to prevent initiation to drinking, modify-risk behavior, and educate the youths to stay positive can help address the problem of harmful underage drinking. On the same note, colleges should develop strong policies to address the issue of access and sale of alcohol within campuses and its neighborhoods to reduce alcohol consumption rate.
Christenson M., & Geiger SD. (2014). Alcohol-Attributable Deaths and years of Potential life lost – 11 States, 2006-2010. MMWR 2014, 63, 213-216. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6310a2.htm?s_cid=mm6310a2_w
Esser, M. B. (2017). Current and Binge Drinking Among High School Students—United States, 1991–2015. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 66.
Esser, M.B., Clayton, H., Demisse, Z., Kanny, D., & Brewer, R.D. (2017). Current and binge drinking among high school students – United States, 1991–2015. MMWR 2017, 66, 474-478. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6618a4.htm?s_cid=mm6618a4_w